2017-07-19 / Local News

Nearing 100, he reflects on the evolution of Jewish South Jersey


AGE: 99


FAMILY: Wife Dorothy Singer (z”l); children Irv Singer and Hope Baumholtz; 3 grandchildren and 4 great-grandchildren

SYNAGOGUE: Cong. M’kor Shalom


At age 99, Joe Singer is a fixture at the Katz Jewish Community Center in Cherry Hill. His JCC days start with adult education classes—he particularly relishes contributing to lively discussions about the topsy-turvy state of politics in the popular “News and Views.” Next up is his usual 30-minute workout at the fitness center. Having worked up an appetite, he heads to the senior lunch, often the highlight of the day.

For him, it’s not the significantly reduced price that is the draw. It’s all about the opportunity to catch up with old friends or to meet new ones from all walks of life. He gets very emotional just observing all the activity around him and is often overcome thinking about how the Jewish institutions he has supported throughout his life have evolved over the past century.

“I have a name for it,” said Singer, who turns 100 on Dec. 3. “It should be called the United Nations Jewish community.”

As he sees it, the modern JCC is the epicenter of life today—not just for Jews but also for other people of different races and ethnicities who feel equally at home. Simply put, it is a showcase of Jewish values at work.

“I am so proud of our community,” he said. “I’ve watched it grow from Camden on. To see where we are today—and for me to live through all of this—in my mind it’s so wonderful.”

Although Singer’s Russian-born parents did not move from Philadelphia to Camden until he was five years old, he considers the city on the Jersey side of the Delaware as his hometown. The year was 1923 and the building his parents bought on Sycamore Street in South Camden was not yet equipped with electricity or modern toilets. The Singers lived above the general store they opened.

Although the store was just one block away from Cong. Sons of Israel, it was situated in an all-black neighborhood that embraced the Jewish immigrant family. In fact, his friends growing up were a mix of black children from the neighborhood, Polish children from his public school, and Jews from Hebrew school and social activities at Talmud Torah, a predecessor of today’s Jewish Community Center.

Through Talmud Torah connections, he met his future wife, the former Dorothy Polasky, when the two were both too young to care for dating. Singer was 13, Dorothy 11 when he used to show up at her house for his Bar Mitzvah lessons from a teacher who lived with Dorothy’s family. A decade later, they married.

Of the four Singer siblings, he was the one who took over the store from his parents. And for 50 years, it was a fixture in the neighborhood. However, as social unrest engulfed Camden along with other major cities, it became harder to stay in business. He was held up at gunpoint three times. When rioting in the early 1970s practically destroyed the store, Singer reluctantly decided to close shop.

Starting over at 55 was not an easy prospect, but that’s what Singer did, opening Joe Singer’s Prime Meats in Cherry Hill. The business thrived until Singer closed shop to retire 10 years later.

Active in Jewish communal organizations and fundraising for Israel throughout his life, Singer was particularly attached to the Camden City 41 branch of Brith Sholom, a national Jewish men’s organization. As one of the founding members, he recalls joyful retreats in the Catskills and selling bricks for $5 to raise money to build the JCC’s Route 70 campus, the predecessor to the current one.

He and Dorothy were also active with the Jewish Geriatric Home after his retirement. Singer took to volunteering with the Safe Haven program for Alzheimer’s patients. His usual activity would be to sit in the middle of a circle to entertain with Yiddish expressions and by singing old-time songs they all knew from their youth. Through daily interactions, he often broke through and got to know many of them.

“If one remembered my name from the previous day, which was rare, that made my day,” he said.

Some of his fondest memories are his trips with Dorothy. The two traveled the world, including Venezuela, Paris, Italy, Mexico, China, Hong Kong and Japan. Their first visit to Israel was for their 25th anniversary in 1965. They went again for their 50th. The couple was together 73 years before Dorothy passed in 2012.

As the century mark approaches, more than a few people have asked him the secret to his longevity and good health. Besides his activities at the Center, Singer golfs once or twice a week. Still driving, he jokes that he has outlasted the engine of his 2002 Buick.

“I always tell people to volunteer and to help their fellow man,” he said. “You will feel so good about it. It keeps you young.” 

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